What Was Apollo One?

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Apollo One was the name of the first Apollo/Saturn planned space mission that tragically ended during a training exercise on 27 January 1967. Apollo was the name given to the missions that followed the Mercury Missions. These missions were an attempt to send manned space vehicles to land on the moon, although Apollo One was merely supposed to be a test mission to evaluate the projected abilities of the Saturn rocket, and the newly designed command module. Unfortunately, this first attempt at an Apollo Mission was disastrous, and resulted in the deaths of three beloved astronauts: Virgil Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chafee.

The launch of Apollo One was planned for February of 1967, and the three astronauts were merely participating in a test which would determine the ability of Apollo One to function on internal power, called a “plugs out” test. A sudden fire in the cockpit quickly engulfed the command module in which Grissom, White and Chafee were sealed. The astronauts could not open the hatch, which opened inward instead of outward, and they were quickly killed in the flames.


The cause of the fire in Apollo One was a result of several things. First, Apollo One was a pure oxygen environment, which ignored the flammable nature of oxygen. Second, a spark in the command module’s uninsulated wiring was enough to set off an uncontrollable fire. There were also many flammable items onboard the Apollo One, including Velcro, which quickly allowed the fire to spread. The fire spread so rapidly and quickly, that the astronauts had no opportunity to escape.

The Apollo One disaster was disheartening for many in the space program. What may be most disheartening about it is the contention that it could have been prevented. In 1961, Russian cosmonaut Valentin Bondarenko was killed in a similar accident. This was concealed from the public and especially from the US because of the “race” to get to the moon, and because the Soviets did not want anyone to know about their failures. Some contend that had Soviet/US relations been better, the US may have been aware of the potential deadliness of a pure oxygen environment like that in Apollo One.

Despite the loss of three brave men, Apollo One was used very much as it had been intended: to revise the spacecrafts of the Apollo missions for greater safety to the astronauts. Changes included mixing oxygen with nitrogen, reducing flammable materials in the spacecraft, correcting over 1000 wiring problems, insulating plumbing and wiring, and redesigning the hatch door to open outward. NASA believes that some of these changes were instrumental in bringing the Apollo Thirteen crew safely home, despite significant mechanical problems. If the same Apollo One module had been used for the Apollo Thirteen mission, it would almost certainly would have resulted in the death of that crew.


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